Odium libertatis

[See Update.] I’m not sure why anyone would expect Liberty University (the late Jerry Falwell’s Collegio Romano) to be even-handed in its treatment of Democrats and Republicans. However much the two parties may resemble one another in their allegiance to corporate interests, on certain matters dear to the heart of the fundamentalist Christians who run the University, Democratic positions are anathema and Republican positions are not.
Since late last year, Democrats on campus have had a club. This month the University withdrew its sponsorship, which means that the club gets no money and cannot use the name or logo of Liberty U in its communications.
An email from Liberty’s VP of student affairs, Mark Hine, to the College Democrats announces that the University has just finished a review of its policy on campus organizations. It then cites what seems to be a section of the Honor Code:
No student club or organization shall be approved, recognized or permitted to meet on campus, advertise, distribute or post materials, or use University facilities if the statements, positions, doctrines, policies, constitutions, bylaws, platforms, activities or events of such club or organization, its parent, affiliate, chapter or similarly named group (even if the similarly named group is not the actual parent, affiliate or chapter) are inconsistent or in conflict with the distinctly Christian mission of the University, the Liberty Way, the Honor Code, or the policies and procedures promulgated by the University.
Hine applies the rule to the case at hand. Because the positions of the Democratic party are “inconsistent or in conflict with the distinctly Christian mission of the University” or with the “Liberty Way”,
We are removing the club from the Liberty website and you will need to cease using Liberty University’s name, including any logo, seal or mark of Liberty University. They are not to be used in any of your publications, electronic or internet, including but not limited to, any website, Facebook, Twitter or any other such publication.
It’s worth noting that though the University’s rule effectively calls for a ban on meetings in University facilites, its action consisted only in denying to the club the use of the University’s name and logo. Nevertheless the implication is that the club, since it meets the conditions of the rule, could have been, and indeed should have been, banned altogether. The tone of the letter is that of a cease-and-desist letter, intended to intimidate.
Once the decision became a target of criticism, Jerry Falwell, Jr. issued a response in which, after complaining about media coverage, he denies that the “Democrat club” was banned:
The students who formed the Democrat club last October are good students. They are pro-life and believe in traditional marriage [in fact those positions are written into the club’s constitution]. They can continue to meet on campus. The only thing that has changed came about as part of a university-wide review of all student organizations for official recognition status. Official recognition carries with it the benefit of using the university name and funds. While this group will not be an officially recognized club, it may still meet on campus.
That’s true but a bit disingenuous. The club may meet, perhaps, but only on the sufferance of the administration: they would be tolerated, like prostitutes in a red-light district. At a later meeting with members of the club, the University offered the club the option of regaining recognition by becoming an affiliate of Democrats for Life of America, which opposes abortion; doing so would bring them into compliance with the rule. As of a few days ago, they were still mulling it over.
The College Republicans think that the Democrats’ club (which began shortly before the 2008 election) provides a welcome opportunity for debate.
Meanwhile, on the 26th, University administrators met again with members of the club. They wanted an apology for what they regarded as false claims made by the club’s president, Brian Diaz, and others to the media, mostly concerning Hine’s email.
The club is going to apologize. My sense is that Diaz and the others, who, as far as I can tell, are against abortion and gay marriage, found themselves in an exposed position—Terry McAuliffe and other Democratic leaders in the state had begun to cite the ban—and needed to back down. For its part the University, represented by Hine and Falwell himself, has done its best to persuade them.
And the moral is…
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has written a letter to the IRS urging that Liberty University’s tax-exempt status be reviewed (they’ve done so before). Liberty University has announced plans to file suit against Americans United. On what basis, I’m not sure.
Not much. Commenters have argued that the University has violated principles of free speech and have raised First Amendment issues. But the University has no obligation to respect principles of free speech, and doesn’t claim to. (People tend to invoke notions of the university as a site of free inquiry, but that is at best a recent and somewhat parochial way of conceiving the institution. Liberty University makes no pretense of being that sort of university; like, say, Oxford University until the 1870s, it promotes free inquiry but only within the faith.) Moreover if TaxProf is right, Liberty’s tax-exempt status is not jeopardized by its action.
The one live issue, mentioned by Ed Brayton, is that the University demands for Christian groups elsewhere the recognition it refuses to the Campus Democrats. Liberty University, or rather an outfit called Liberty Counsel that now operates under the aegis of its law school, has argued—and won—a case in which a campus religious group, Gator Christian Life, was denied official recognition on the grounds that it violated a policy against discrimination on the basis of religious preference.
I don’t think Brayton has much of an argument. The parallel would have been this: suppose Lib U had a clause in its rules governing clubs to the effect that clubs could not discriminate on the basis of political affiliation, and proceeded to deny recognition to the Democratic club on the grounds that they did so discriminate. The Democrats could quite reasonably answer that it is in the nature of political clubs to require of their members that they subscribe to the principles of the club, and thus to discriminate between those who do and those who don’t. The issue raised by Liberty Counsel on behalf of Gator Christian Life isn’t one of free speech, it’s that some anti-discrimination principles are incompatible with some sorts of club. Liberty Counsel argued, successfully, that in the case of Gator Christian Life, the University’s blanket principle of non-discrimination must admit an exception.
Now there may be sorts of club whose raison d’être is so at odds with the principles of a university, or with moral principles generally, that any hint of endorsement would involve the university either in glaring inconsistency (e.g. a club whose purpose was to intimidate professors in the classroom) or moral wrong (a whites-only club). Liberty University takes the Democratic club to have been of this sort, insofar as its recognition by the University would be taken to be an endorsement somehow of the principles of the national Democratic party, principles that the University finds grossly at odds with its “Christian mission” (Falwell and co. tend to say that the pro-choice position is not Christian, but that’s descriptively false and normatively tendentious).
There is, nevertheless, an element of arbitrariness in the University’s action. Not because they have treated the Democratic club differently from the Republican club, but because the Democratic club has explicitly included in its constitution the positions that the University regards as required by its Christian mission. To return to Hines’s letter:
Even though this club may not support the more radical planks of the democratic party, the democratic party is still the parent organization of the club on campus. The Democratic Party Platform is contrary to the mission of LU and to Christian doctrine (supports abortion, federal funding of abortion, advocates repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, promotes the “LGBT” agenda, Hate Crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc). The candidates this club supports uphold the Platform and implement it. The candidates supported are directly contrary to the mission of LU. By using LU or Liberty University and Democrat in the name, the two are associated and the goals of both run in opposite directions.
The passage is not entirely coherent, but the gist is clear. The very name “Liberty University College Democrats” forges a link between the University and the Party, a link which is reinforced by the club’s use of the University’s logo, colors, and so forth. The taint of that link is so great that it cannot be mitigated by any disclaimer the College Democrats might offer.
Forget Liberty University and its peculiar mission for a moment. Try to imagine cases where their position would be plausible. No university would want to appear to endorse genocide: a KKK chapter, even if it disavowed the aims of the national organization, could reasonably be denied support because the association of the university with white supremacism is odious enough to overwhelm any mitigation a disavowal could provide.
Liberty University’s view, then, is that association with the national Democratic party, or more precisely with an organization espousing the positions it finds odious, tinctures it with so great a taint that even at second hand no association can be tolerated.
That is the issue. People seem to want a more sensible basis on which to argue. There isn’t one, not here.
Update: The university has agreed to allow the Campus Democrats to be an “unofficial” club. They can use the University’s name and logo, but they must make it clear that they are not endorsed by the University. The College Republicans will be subject to the same condition. See Steve Benen at Washington Monthly, CNN, and
“We decided to go ahead and implement (the policy) as of today,” Falwell said Monday. “The (College) Republicans have been removed from official status and been moved to the new unofficial status that we just created.” […]
“We just decided, with our religious mission, it’s going to be a nightmare to try to figure out which candidates are in-line with our school’s mission and which ones aren’t. And we feel obligated to take the same approach with the Republican club as we do with the Democrat club.”

LinkMay 30, 2009 in Academic Affairs · Current Affairs · Religion